Black Westerns: Blazing Saddles (1974)

There is a moment at the end of "Blazing Saddles," and I feel comfortable describing it because I know you have all seen the film. During the film's climactic fight, the camera rises on a crane, revealing that the whole thing is taking place on a set at Warner Brothers studios. The fight spills onto another set, then the commissary, and climaxes at the Chinese theater.

And so it had to be, because "Blazing Saddles" is not set in the past, but is openly, flagrantly, unabashedly set in 1973, the year it was made, and addresses itself to the subject of race in America in that year.

There are actual stories to be told of Black men in the West. There were a lot of people of color in the West, including black lawmen, as in this movie: There was Bass Reeves, as an example, who was deputy U.S. marshal in in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory.

Even "Blazing Saddles" star Cleavon Little was a product of the Old West, in his own way: He was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, which got it start as a little Western town on the end of a railroad line, just like the town in "Blazing Saddles." Shug Fisher, a Western actor and a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, also hailed from Chickasha, as did country singer Merle Kilgore and Native American actress and storyteller Te Ata Fisher.

But "Blazing Saddles'" premise is that there is something inherently hysterical about a Black man in the West. So it helps to remember that this is not the real West, but a West that serves as a contemporary parody. Even before the climax, "Blazing Saddles" constantly reminds us that we are watching a movie. The most famous example: The main villain is named Hedley Lamarr, and is constantly confused with Hedy Lamarr, who would not even be born until long after the era of the film. At one point Mel Brooks, playing an incompetent governor, informs Hedley that when Hedy gets around to being born, he'll be able to sue her for using his name, a dizzying moment of time bending comedy.

"Blazing Saddles" was mostly scripted by Jewish writers, including Brooks, the supremely daffy Andrew Bergman (who first conceived the idea), Norman Steinberg, and Alan Unger. But Brooks made the extraordinarily good decision to also bring Richard Pryor into the writers room (and initially wanted him to star in the film).

It's not clear how much of the film's sensibilities originated with Pryor. The film had always been about jive talk on the range, ever since Bergman's original script, and Brooks has said in interview that Pryor was primarily interested in a character called Mongo. This is a brutish cowboy played in the film by Alex Karras, and Pryor wrote a series of Loony Toons-style gags where Little outsmarts Mongo, most of which didn't make it to the final film.

But Pryor's presence authenticates the film, in a manner of speaking. When the film satirizes the Black experience, as when Cleavon Little first appears in a flashy cowboy outfit, it feels less like a group of Jews mocking Black people and more like Pryor had a hand in self-satire. The film's slang likely originated with Bergman, but with Pryor present in the writing room, we can assume he corrected anything that rang false. And Pryor literally gave the film permission for one of its more controversial elements, its copious use of the N word.

"Blazing Saddles" is rather remarkable in that it is a film made for a mainstream audience, but with a Black star and with the expectation that the audience would side with a Black character against White racists. From the opening scene, in which a racist foreman demands Black workers sing spirituals, audiences are expected to immediately side with the Black characters and delight when they outsmart bullying White people.

On a recent rewatch I was struck by two things. Firstly, I was flabbergasted at just how homophobic the film is. Throughout the film, jokes are made at the expense of gay men, which just goes to show that you can be entirely sympathetic to one sort of oppression and entirely unsympathetic to another.

But secondly, I was struck by the close and fast and seemingly genuine friendship that develops between Cleavon Little's character and a drunk gunslinger played by Gene Wilder. I always felt that there was a missed opportunity in Wilder's character, the Waco Kid, because Wilder is so obviously Jewish and yet the film does nothing with it. (Wilder would later explore this more with "The Frisco Kid.")

But Wilder was not the first choice for the role — it was first given to Minnesotan Gig Young, but the actor was legendarily troubled and alcoholic, and so was quickly replaced with Wilder. Despite his wild hair and slightly hysterical voice, Wilder is a credible gunman, but he's even more credible as a stand-in for White audience members.

He serves a similar function to a traditional straight man, in that he is there to respond to onscreen comedy and communicate to the audience how to respond. But his role is more complicated: He is there to give White audiences permission to be delighted by Cleavon Little, even when Cleavon Little is humiliating White people.

Despite Wilder's famously manic onscreen persona, he was also a remarkably generous actor, more than willing to both get out of the way of and highlight his partners when they should have the spotlight. It's part of what made his later collaborations with Pryor so successful — Wilder genuinely respected Pryor's tremendous comic gifts and helped showcase them. In some of their most successful scenes, Wilder actually doubles whatever Pryor is doing, amplifying his comedy.

Wilder does that with Little throughout "Blazing Saddles," clearing room for Little to perform and then responding to it with genuine warmth and affection.

I don't want to sound like I am giving too much credit to Wilder here. He only comes in as an audience surrogate well after the start of the film, and, until then, Little is on his own. In his first scene, in fact, he is surrounded by Black railroad workers, facing off against White cowboys, and Brooks gave him the unenviable job of immediately getting White audience members onto his side.

Little nails it, I think with the help of Pryor. With the Mongo scenes, we see that Pryor conceived of Little's character as a sort of Wild West Bugs Bunny, and Little embraces this fully. He responds to every threat with a cheerfully surreal bravado, as though every moment is an opportunity for anarchic comic invention, which is Bugs Bunny's essential worldview.

He's tremendous in the film, and, having starred in a film that quickly developed the reputation of being one of the greatest film comedies ever made, should have gone on to have a long career starring in films. Instead, he mostly had a series of small supporting roles in low-budget films, did some fine work on television and onstage (including appearing in several projects with a cousin of mine, Judd Hirsch), but never carried a big project again.

In interview, Cleavon Little said he didn't even get a film offer for three years after "Blazing Saddles." He went on to say that he doesn't want to assume it is because he is black, because that would simply be too defeatist, too discouraging. But, when pressed on it, he admitted that he thought there was a real problem with the entertainment industry.

There was, and is. It was and is an industry that would coddle mediocre White actors and make room for talented but troubled White actors like Gig Young, who was in six films in the four years following getting canned from "Blazing Saddles," despite the fact that he was worsening toward an eventual murder-suicide.

But it couldn't find room for Cleavon Little, the star of "Blazing Saddles"? Gene Wilder is reported to have said the following about the film: "They smashed racism in the face, but they're doing it while you laugh."

They needed to smash more.


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